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  • Jahnavi Kirkire

“Go back to your country!”: A Brief Study of Asian America

What is it about Asia? A massive continent, it plagues us, confuses us, and is a deep mystery that the United States has yet to unravel. In honor of UMD’s Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Month this April, I decided to take a deep dive into the history of Asians in the United States. Being a Desi-American myself, I have always found it fascinating that even though there is a month celebrating my heritage, I am not of the same status as other people in this country.

Asian-American history is rife with pain and suffering. The first wave of Asian immigrants to the United States stemmed from the demand for cheap labor in mines, factories, and most notably, the Transcontinental Railroad. Our nation is built on the backs of laborers who came here -- or in other cases were forcibly brought here -- for a better life. Their blood, sweat, and tears created the country we call home. Did the United States truly offer them that life? Was it what they were looking for?

Following the first wave of immigration, xenophobia became all the more pronounced. Racist, discriminatory, and exclusionary pieces of legislation flowed out of Congress, including the Page Act (1875), the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the Immigration Act of 1917, and more. The Page Act of 1875, on paper, prohibited the importation of women for “lewd purposes,” but effectively stopped Asian women from immigrating to the United States, thus stopping any Asian man from starting a family in the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act is relatively self-explanatory, but it, alongside barring immigration from China, also prohibited Chinese people from gaining citizenship. The Immigration Act of 1917 was an expansion of the exclusion act and barred immigration from almost all countries in Asia. Each was worse than the last, leading to the eventual internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The internment camps were horrendous -- and horror stories emerged in the years following. Even after World War II, Asian Americans struggled. The concept of “respect” was nearly unheard of.

Although Asian Americans were still not considered “Americans,” the late 1950s brought Dalip Saund to his first term in the House of Representatives -- the first Asian American in Congress, just over a decade after Japanese Americans were kept in detention because of their ethnicity. Hiram L. Fong, Patsy Mink, Norman Mineta, Kamala Harris. All names in politics who have broken barriers and started to build a world for all Asian Americans. But with each success, we have to look at what’s still happening. In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a sharp rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, mostly due to prejudice towards China, following reports that China orchestrated the pandemic. The discrimination and racism that Asian Americans have faced cannot be concentrated in just this article. We are not the norm. We don’t look like everyone else. But we are still here -- and making ourselves known.

The actual history of Asian Americans is vast. There is information that we still do not know because people have not been able to talk about it. Countless lives lost in the pursuit of a more “perfect” America, and it is those that we should continue to honor today. ‘

My own story -- and several others like mine -- has been deeply impacted by what my predecessors went through. Even my parents, despite moving here in the 1990s, were racially profiled and ridiculed. I have been told more than once to “go back to my country,” because people believe that I do not belong here. We describe ourselves as “Asian-American,” but the “Asian,” always comes first. We are not the norm, but we have made a new norm.

This APIDA Month, we honor the people who brought us here. I honor my parents and my sister for getting me here. We honor the lives of people who built this country with their bare hands and were never recognized. We honor the progress we have made. We honor and strive to continue making this world our own. We are here. We have made it. We will continue to build the future, brighter and better, for all.

This APIDA month, we will make our community proud.


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